Do conservation easements hinder environmental management?

Conservation easements have been signed to protect some 18 million acres of privately owned land in the U.S. But a study of easements in Wisconsin by CALS assistant professor Adena Rissman raises the question of whether these contracts are flexible enough to meet their goals in the face of constant environmental change.

Through a conservation easement, a landowner sells certain rights, such as the right to subdivide for development, to a government agency or nonprofit land trust. But while the lands face constant change—development, invasive species, climate change, and changing attitudes about what it means to conserve land—easements are fixed, legal documents that may prohibit the tactics that conservationists rely on to protect land. Some easements prevent techniques that are critical for managing invasive species, such as cutting vegetation or spraying herbicide. Many easements also prohibit monitoring needed to determining if management changes are needed.

“[T]he easement tool does not always provide the ability to perform active land management,” Rissman says.

“We want to see conservation policy that is more adaptive, more able to meet those conservation goals on the site, given the inevitable changes in conditions,” she adds.